The Ancient Way of Praying Made New

Last summer, sitting on a rocky beach with family all around, I noticed a small white shell among the scramble of stones and shards of driftwood. Soon I had collected a handful, all pure white and perfectly whorled, the former dwelling place for some diminutive, absentee mollusk. For a few days, I carried them around in my pocket, reaching in to finger their smooth contours, already wondering what practical use I could devise for them, and their story would have ended in a dark kitchen cupboard if Paraclete Press had not sent me a copy of Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New.

I am Protestant to the bone, and it would never have occurred to me that ten small white shells in my hand could represent ten members of my family and serve as a tactile reminder to pray for each, one by one. Author and jewelry designer Suzanne Henley reminds readers that ancient practices of prayer were very tactile. Bead by bead, fingers remembered what the heart cherished, and words would spring to mind.

As a glass artist, Henley has the unique privilege of crafting customized prayer beads, and her creative view of the world lends a gritty practicality to the business of prayer that so many of us talk about — but so few of us practice in the way we want to.

“Praying is not just an arcane, dusty practice that a group of humorless, self-righteous old men sat down and made up a long time ago. It is not just words in a prayer book. It’s not a milquetoast, rehearsed exhortation delivered in a faux-devout voice to begin a citywide prayer breakfast with cold scrambled eggs. We carry this need for connection in our guts . . .”  (xi)

The History of Prayer Beads

So, as Suzanne scoops handfuls of Mongolian sand beads from the Gobi Desert and beads crafted from ancient Roman glass fragments, she invites us to look with new eyes at a tradition that, by the time of the Reformation, had deteriorated into an empty piling of slippery words upon which the praying saint hoped to ascend to heaven. Fast forward to 1987, however, and to the statisticians’s great surprise, as church affiliation begins a decline, the use of Protestant prayer beads is in an upswing.

Madeleine L’Engle described prayer beads as a tool to “enflesh the words, make thought tangible.” Maybe our distracted, squirrel-chasing, social-media-saturated brains are seeking an analog anchor. Apparently, the earliest known example of tactile prayer reminders were used by the Desert Fathers who committed to praying the 150 Psalms twice a day. In order to keep track of the number, they carried 300 pebbles in their cloaks, tossing one out after each prayer. Because I am unfamiliar with the historic prayers associated with the rosary, I appreciated a charming child-drawn diagram, as well as the road map for Protestant prayer beads which proscribes no set words or prayers.

Prayer and Work

Suzanne and I are kindred spirits in our numbering of the tedious steps of grocery shopping:  “Into the basket, out of the basket onto the checkout stand, into the bags, into the car, into the house, and into the fridge and cabinets . . .” (43) However, instead of an occasion for grumpiness, Suzanne sees grocery shopping as a “weekly prayer-bead adventure” in which she meditates on the fruit of the Spirit in the produce section, wordlessly blesses fellow shoppers, and quiets her heart while pushing her cart.

Cracking 360 eggs to make breakfast for a gathering of homeless people, Suzanne also practices a ministry of prayer with each thwack against the rim of the bowl, reminding me of prayers I lifted while pinning small socks to a clothesline (Thank you for the gift of this small life . . .), or, more recently, over sports uniforms and tattered work pants (Bless this boy with safety and success . . . ).

Whether we use beads or seashells, the events of our life, or the fingers of both hands to mark the practice of our prayers, the prayers are offered, word-by-word, thought-by-thought. This is also the nature of a life poured out, not in a great gush, once and for all, but drop-by-drop as we pay attention to the voice of the Spirit and open our hands as well as our hearts in gratitude, thanksgiving, and love.


Many thanks to Paraclete Press for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Joining you in thanksgiving for a God who hears and answers prayer,

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Half Way to Entirely

C.S. Lewis described the human condition as a process of always becoming more of what we already are. These are cautionary words for me at this point in middle age, particularly as I consider the possibilities. In Lewis’s The Great Divorce, the Teacher speaks regretfully of a seemingly harmless woman who has come to the end of her life, not as a “grumbler,” but as “only a grumble.”

It begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticizing it. . . You can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine. (74, 75)

Thanks be to God, it seems that this tendency can work in positive ways as well, and the poet Hayden Carruth bears witness to this, declaring in his “Testament”: “Now I am almost entirely love.” Whatever sifting and sandpapering process brought him to that state, his words inspired Jennifer Wallace as she collected an offering of her own poems.

In Almost Entirely: Poems (Paraclete Poetry) the reader is treated to the process of a woman becoming. As one who is “predisposed by nature to question everything,” (17) Wallace reconciles her doubts with the presence of a God who is well able to take in hand her persistent wondering. In the process, God shows up in both surprising and ordinary ways within the pauses:

  • In the foreordained turning of the head to view a crow in flight or a “squirrel passage, or a person with whom I share an ever-present reaching toward.” (20)
  • In a poignant pondering of “life’s second half”:

“Tell me, someone:
with the spade of days remaining,
how to turn the soil
and where.” (34)

Finding Joy in the Cup of Shadow

Far-from-glib reflections excavate grief and plumb the depths of disappointment with God, borrowing  words from C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed to lament that faith can sometimes feel like “the rope that holds until we need it.” Wallace riffs on Psalm 23 when her “cup of shadow” (24) overflows, and she asks for grace to unbolt the door and walk into a season we’re so tempted to deny.

For most of us, by the time we reach middle age, the jarring truth has been well-established that “the world won’t behave, not even for me.” (39) We are ruefully accustomed to the phone call that describes the disappointing diagnosis of a parent, a friend, a spouse. These are the days when we awaken to an early dawn and begin to take attendance:

“Whose time will come next?
Storm taken.
War taken.
A tiny fracture in a cell.”

Even now, there is grace to find joy in a dusty yellow warbler who hops “in the autumn dogwood near the gate . . . on its way to Venezuela” (49) and to rejoice in the memory of a beautiful, normal day (77).

In every season of life, we dwell in the conflicted joy of The Two Pockets:

“In one is the message, ‘I am dust and ashes,’ and in the other, ‘for me the universe was made.'” Receiving the second in light of the first is the course of health and wholeness. This is enough. A simultaneous comprehension of these two truths will set us on a path that is almost entirely hope.Many thanks to Paraclete Press (here in beautiful New England!) for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Almost Entirely: Poems (Paraclete Poetry), simply click on the title within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Thank you for joining me today on the path of hope,

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular content delivered to your inbox. Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging communities on a regular basis. They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week. I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

A Glorious Bustle of Life

The layers of life, in all their overwhelming proportions, call for a large God. The unexpected diagnosis, the many ways in which we disappoint ourselves, and the messiness of the generations all seem to come home to roost during middle age as parents depart this world and adult children come into their own. Margie Nethercott elected to manage all these complications by carefully selecting a large rock, tying it to her ankle, paddling to the middle of a lake and letting the rock pull her to the bottom.

Her plan would have been flawless except for low rainfall and high temperatures which put the water level at about neck high on a medium height middle-aged woman, leaving her tethered and standed in the middle of the lake. Can You See Anything Now?: A Novel by Katherine James faces head-on the emptiness, weariness, insecurity, and discord of small town life in Trinity, New York where the Nethercott family and a constellation of their friends seek appropriate ways to struggle.

My favorite character, Etta Wallace surveys Trinity’s comings and goings from a white Cracker Barrel rocking chair on her front porch and makes a quiet commitment to Margie’s well-being and recovery. Prescribing banana bread (with nuts) and Crock-Pot dinners, she serves up grace in the evangelical tradition. Their unlikely friendship grew out of the rich soil of Etta’s resolve to “do the opposite”:

” . . . when people are struggling, it seemed to Etta, the people around them run away–embarrassed, uncomfortable. She would do the opposite and introduce herself.”

Finding the glory of God sufficient to carry her down the hill and away from her safe fortress, Etta also found herself walking beside Margie through her adjustment to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and a tragedy on the banks of the Weekeepeemee River that rocked the town.

Those who struggle with mental illness either personally or in their family tree will rejoice to note that Margie does not immediately bounce back from her depression and begin spouting Hillsong lyrics. Pixie’s fraught experimentation with drugs and sex are portrayed as ineffectual methods for taking the edge off the bleakness that had become normal for her. Readers who are sensitive to triggers should know that there’s a good bit of vivid description around a young woman’s habit of self harm (cutting) and the internal dialogue leading up to Margie’s attempted suicide.

Can You See Anything Now? is a complicated read and the winner of Christianity Today’s 2018 award for fiction. The believing community needs fictional accounts of family life set in the raw details of walking this broken ground that do not require a happy ending to be redemptive. If you are disposed to tolerate some obscenities and profanities in your reading, James’s lyrically written prose will encourage you to look for the thread of hope in your own story.


Many thanks to Paraclete Press for providing a copy of this book.

Rejoicing in the Glory (so very big!),


I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Can You See Anything Now?: A Novel simply click on the title, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

 

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular content delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.